Some Understaffed PetSmarts Are Dealing With Freezers Overflowing With Dead Pets

"The amount of death and loss was unacceptable."
On the Clock is Motherboard's reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.

When a pet guinea pig or snake or hamster dies in the hands of America’s largest pet store, PetSmart, the retailer has strict protocols for disposing of its remains, at least on paper. Wrap the deceased pet in a paper towel, place it in a plastic fish bag, seal the bag with rubber bands, and store it in a refrigerator or a freezer, according to the company’s “deceased store-owned pet policy,” which was obtained by Motherboard. (PetSmart enacted this policy in July 2020 and it was active as of January 2022, but the company did not respond to a question about whether the policy remains active.) 


“A minimum of once per week”, deceased animals must be transferred to a vet that cremates the bodies, the policy states. “Deceased pets must never be left in the freezer for longer than a week or left in the refrigerator for more than 24 hours.” 

These guidelines aren’t always followed because of understaffing, according to employees Motherboard spoke to. Between 2019 and 2021, Lea Romo-Serrano, a 24-year-old former PetSmart employee in Tullahoma, Tennessee, estimates that she was asked at least 30 times to dispose of dead animals on her own time by her superiors. Romo-Serrano says she would have to throw away hamsters, guinea pigs, rats, mice, bearded dragons, geckos, and snakes because the coolers in her store were overflowing with dead animals. Some of the animals had been returned to the store by their owners, others had arrived dead on trucks in the winter, and others didn’t get necessary veterinary care, she said, adding, “Sometimes I was doing it weekly because we didn't have staff to take a vet trip to properly dispose of them, so I was instructed to dispose of them myself.”

In a text exchange in 2020 obtained by Motherboard, a supervisor texted Romo-Serrano photos of plastic bags with dead animals wrapped in paper towels, and wrote, “Take care of these [tomorrow] before we get fired. Just get em out of here please.” Motherboard reached out to the supervisor for comment about the employee being asked to dispose of deceased pets, and they denied the claim. 


PetSmart did not respond to a question about whether this was normal procedure and how these situations should be handled, but said “these allegations do not represent our 1,650 stores and are not reflective of the more than 50,000 associates that give so much of themselves to care for all pets as if they were their own.” 


A freezer at a PetSmart location in Arizona. Oscar C, a current PetSmart employee at the store, said this freezer is filled with two month's worth of dead animals due to understaffing.

Romo-Serrano says she would frequently throw out the dead animals in the trash cans at her house. 

“It was hard. I had to seek out counseling for mental health,” Romo-Serrano said. “I felt like I was in an abusive relationship or cycle with my job. There were so many times where I wanted to do the right thing but felt like I couldn’t, because if you do something they didn’t like, they would decrease your hours until you were forced to quit.” 

Motherboard spoke to five current and former PetSmart workers in Michigan, Tennessee, and Massachusetts who described feeling responsible for the well-being of sick and dying pets but unable to get PetSmart to treat them. These workers said that seeing sick animals not receive care, in addition to the lack of healthcare benefits for part-time workers, understaffing, the denial of hazard pay during the pandemic, and the lack of guaranteed hours, has impacted their mental health. Many of the stories told to Motherboard are backed up by photographic evidence. Two workers filed OSHA complaints during recent power outages where PetSmart stores allegedly weren’t equipped with backup generators, leading to the deaths of cold-sensitive animals and pushing workers to engage in heavy manual labor in darkness. (OSHA has reached out to PetSmart about the two complaints, according to workers who filed complaints, but has not made any official findings. PetSmart did not respond to questions about the OSHA complaints from Motherboard.) Motherboard’s investigation follows two national nonprofits’ publication of testimonials from PetSmart workers about the conditions at their stores that reportedly led pets to die. Motherboard interviewed some of the same workers featured in these testimonials. 


“The amount of death and loss was unacceptable.”

Since the private equity firm BC Partners acquired PetSmart in a $8.7 billion leveraged buyout in 2014, four PetSmart employees say that cost-cutting in the form of severe understaffing, the consolidation of jobs, a lack of sufficient job training, and denial of veterinary care and proper habitats for animals has meant that pets are falling sick, forgoing treatment, and dying at alarming rates in their stores, where freezers and coolers, in some cases, are literally “overflowing” with dead pets. 

Motherboard obtained photos of freezers stuffed to capacity with dead hamsters, lizards, and other animals. In one case, an employee said dead animals had been in the freezer for 10 months. Abegale Fernandes, a 34-year-old former PetSmart manager in Barnstable, Massachusetts, who quit in December, said this happened because stores were so understaffed that no one qualified to do so could take the deceased animals to the vet for cremation. 


A cooler filled with deceased animals at a PetSmart store in California. The photo was taken on December 14, 2021.


A freezer at a PetSmart store in California. The photo was also taken on December 14, 2021. A worker said the freezer hadn’t been emptied since February 2021.

In November, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a critic of predatory practices in private equity, sent a letter to BC Partners demanding answers about working conditions at PetSmart and in a later statement admonished the company for a potential SPAC deal that would take the company public. In February, Warren wrote of the SPAC deal, “I am worried that yet again workers are going to get the shaft in this deal.” 


To be clear, PetSmart is a huge chain, with 1,650 stores and more than 50,000 employees, a point PetSmart raised when Motherboard sent it a detailed list of questions for this article. Rob Litt, a spokesperson for PetSmart, told Motherboard that PetSmart’s pet care standards have never been higher: “To suggest otherwise is simply not true and contrary to the sentiment shared by the more than 50 million pet parents who trust us with their pets each year.” 

When Motherboard initially reached out for comment, a law firm representing PetSmart sent a letter asking us not to publish the story. “We remain deeply concerned that Ms. Gurley is rushing to publish a false, preconceived narrative without having attempted to uncover any facts that may have contradicted her planned story. We therefore request that Vice not publish the article. If Vice does elect to proceed, we demand that Vice’s legal and editorial teams engage in a thorough pre-publication review of Ms. Gurley’s planned article—as well as the steps she took to investigate her claims—to ensure that Vice does not rush to publish defamatory falsehoods,” the letter read in part.

“PetSmart holds the health and well-being of its associates, customers, and pets as its top priority, and PetSmart has diligently labored to become a leader in the industry in advancing and promoting pet care standards,” it continued. "Please preserve—and do not delete—any and all drafts of the proposed story."


During the pandemic, Litt added, PetSmart spent $250 million to support associates with increased pay, bonuses, and safety measures. Litt said due to these investments, PetSmart’s average hourly wage increased by 17 percent, and now exceeds $15 an hour. 

PetSmart also offers an employee assistance program, known as Ally, to all associates and on-site counselors when serious incidents occur in their facilities. 

Litt also said that PetSmart has industry-leading animal policies, such as 800 hours of hands-on instruction and safety certification for all dog groomers, vet hospitals at nearly half of its stores, and on-call emergency vet coverage at all stores. PetSmart’s partnership with PetSmart Charities has helped save the lives of nearly 10,000,000 pets, Litt added. 

On Feb. 28, the national retail advocacy group United For Respect and the animal rights organization World Animal Protection published testimonials detailing stories of unsafe working conditions and animal deaths at some PetSmart stores. The organizations are demanding that BC Partners, PetSmart’s owner, meet with workers on United For Respect’s PetSmart worker committee, a group that formed to fight for higher wages and benefit increases at PetSmart. To date, no PetSmart stores in the United States have unionized.

Five current and former PetSmart employees at different stores said that PetSmart managers regularly deny veterinary care for sick and diseased pets because of how much it would cost. Motherboard shared photos with PetSmart; the company did not directly address them.


“It wasn’t about their health. It’s about how quickly we can get this animal to a sellable point.”

Joy Potts, a former PetSmart employee who worked in the pet care department in Murfreesboro, Tennessee for two years and quit in August, described a traumatic experience she had watching a guinea pig slowly die from an ear infection without treatment. “We noticed this guy had a noticeable head tilt,” Potts said. “That’s a big indicator of ear infection. Ear infections are common in small animals and notoriously fatal.”

Potts provided an image of the guinea pig. She said she and her colleagues named the guinea pig Igor, and they cared for him as his body began to deform. Eventually, the guinea pig was euthanized.

“So many people are experiencing burnout. It feels like people’s souls are being drained,” said Potts. “People going into PetSmart should know the company doesn’t view pets as animals. They view them as products. When businesses apply numerical value over moral value, you see lots of abuse. If you care about animals, until they change, this is the type of business you don’t want to engage with.” 

Guinea Pig with Ear Infection

The guinea pig with the ear infection that was euthanized in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

Isabelle Cope, a former PetSmart associate in Spring Hill, Tennessee who quit in March 2021 said when she asked about taking an unresponsive hamster to the vet when she was working at a store in nearby Tullahoma, a superior “was like ‘no it wouldn’t be worth the money to euthanize him.’” 


According to several former employees and this PETA report, some PetSmart stores used to give bonuses to managers who kept veterinary costs low. Litt, the spokesperson for PetSmart, told Motherboard that all associates are allowed to seek treatment for in-store pets. Vet fees do not impact leader bonuses or store scorecards, and associates are trained that providing appropriate vet care at the right time is an important step for pets in the company’s care.

“A regular vet visit could be $60 or more. If you have an animal worth $50, the manager is like, ‘I’m spending more money than it’s worth to just sell it,’” said Potts. “It wasn’t about their health. It’s about how quickly we can get this animal to a sellable point.”

Multiple workers said fish tanks and filtration systems in their stores interconnected and that it was common to have massive outbreaks of disease that killed off large swaths of fish. In one instance, Potts said, 30 fish or more were dying a day. Workers provided photos of tanks filled with dead fish. 

Koi Fish with Cotton Fungus

A koi fish with cotton fungus at the PetSmart in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Cotton fungus is a condition that affects fish with weak immune systems.

Fernandes said at her store in Barnstable crickets would die en masse after they arrived at the store from ammonia build up because no one unpacked their boxes. Multiple workers also described power outages where dying pets are denied heat and light they need to survive for days. These stories were backed up with photo evidence, which was shared with PetSmart by Motherboard. 


Isabela Burrows, a 19-year-old associate lead at the PetSmart in Howell, Michigan, who has aspirations to become a vet tech, said her store once received four consecutive shipments of fish that quickly died upon entering the tanks. “I kept telling them we should test the water, but they didn’t listen to me the first few times when I said we should stop the fish shipments,” she said.  

Fish Tank

A fish tank at the PetSmart location in Howell, Massachusetts, where large shipments of fish have perished upon entering the tank system, according to current associate Isabela Burrows.

After BC Partners acquired PetSmart in 2015 employees who experienced the transition told Motherboard that their stores lost so many middle managers that the remaining workers were taking on the jobs of multiple people and could not properly care for the pets that PetSmart sells. At the PetSmart in Tullahoma, Tennessee, Happy Allen, a former employee, said during the BC Partners transition the store eliminated positions such as senior groomer and senior trainer. In Barnstable, Fernandes said the store consolidated the roles of pet care manager and support manager.

Oscar C, a PetSmart employee in Arizona who asked to be identified by only his first name and last initial, said, in a testimonial published by United For Respect, “There’s sadly a lot of deaths, partially because the company doesn’t schedule enough people on each shift, so issues get missed,” noting wet tail in particular as a cause of death. Wet tail is a watery diarrhea caused by stress that can kill hamsters within 48 to 72 hours. Multiple workers said that shifts are so understaffed with just two or three workers in a store at a time that pets aren’t getting the care they need. Many PetSmart employees earn less than $15 an hour and do not receive healthcare benefits. 


“My son said ‘hey mom, the snakes look like tennis balls.’ I said ‘they look like tennis balls because they’re so cold.’ My kids were horrified.”

Litt, the spokesperson for PetSmart said that PetSmart employees have several channels for reporting concerns, including an anonymous call center and the option to report to the store or regional managers.

For more than two years, the national retail worker advocacy group United For Respect has been campaigning to improve conditions at PetSmart. In September 2021, United For Respect published a report with findings that dog deaths at PetSmart had doubled since BC Partners acquired the retailer in 2015. At least, 36 dogs have died in PetSmart’s care since 2015 compared with 15 deaths between 2008 and 2014, according to the report. Under BC Partner’s watch PetSmart has been cited or fined for violating animal welfare or health and safety laws in Colorado, North Carolina, Florida, Michigan, Massachusetts, Maine, Virginia, and Vermont. PetSmart did not provide any more context about these cases when asked for comment. In December, more than 5,000 advocates signed a petition demanding BC Partners guarantee $15 an hour, healthcare for all employees, at least two weeks of severance pay for all employees, and worker representation on the board of directors. United For Respect says that so far, BC Partners has not responded to their requests. BC Partners did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. 


“We’ve tried multiple avenues for conversation with BC Partners for over two years and have been met with nothing but silence. We’re seeing massive cuts at every level. Staffing, hours, supplies. The changes happened immediately after the acquisition,” said Bianca Agustin, the corporate accountability director at United For Respect. “We see PetSmart fight as part and parcel of a larger fight against private equity.” 

Liz Cabrera-Holtz, the wildlife campaign manager at World Animal Protection, US, told Motherboard the well-being of animals and employees at PetSmart is closely linked.  

“When they’re aren’t enough employees in the store, there isn’t enough time to maintain care of animals,” Cabrera-Holtz said. “The struggles of animals and workers are stemming from the same system of greed.” 

World Animal Protection has been campaigning for PetSmart to discontinue its sales of reptiles and amphibians, a model which Cabrera-Holtz says is rooted in “cruelty” in large part because wild animals require complex and specialized care.  

PetSmart employees that Motherboard spoke to also claim the company does not sufficiently prepare for power outages that can endanger animals at their stores, and in several cases, they said animals have died en masse as a result of power outages caused by inclement weather.

In late October, a Nor’easter storm wiped out the power at the PetSmart store in Barnstable, Massachusetts, for four days, according to a complaint filed with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. Workers were expected to unload semi-trucks and stock the store by light of their cell phones. Without light or heat for 24 hours, many reptiles that do best at 90 degrees were in danger of dying, but PetSmart did not supply a power generator for the store, instead providing winter hand warmers for workers to place on reptile tanks, the OSHA complaint states. The complaint has not yet received a determination from OSHA, and PetSmart did respond to an opportunity to offer more context about the complaint. 


Fernandes, the former PetSmart store manager in Barnstable, Massachusetts, who quit in December and filed the OSHA complaint, repeatedly contacted a superior about reptiles whose habitats had dropped into the low 60s and 50s, but he said they needed to wait and ignored her later requests, according to the OSHA complaint. Fernandes says the hand-warmers held the tanks at 65 degrees but also burned the animals that clung to them for heat. Out of options, she transported three habitats with pythons, geckos, and bearded dragons to her home to warm them under heat lamps, photo documentation confirms. The complaint has not yet received a determination from OSHA, and PetSmart did respond to an opportunity to offer more context about the complaint. 

Power Outage Saving Lizards

Abegale Fernandes, a former PetSmart employee in Massachusetts, brought three reptile habitats to her house during an extended power outage at her store in October.

“When I went to the store to take reptiles home, I went with my children,” Fernandes said. “My son said ‘hey mom, the snakes look like tennis balls.’ I said ‘they look like tennis balls because they’re so cold.’ My kids were horrified.” Fernandes said all of the reptiles she took home for three days survived, but some of the reptiles that stayed at the store and many of the fish–that were treated with peroxide which adds oxygen for roughly 24 hours—died. 

“I’m traumatized about it,” Fernandes said, noting that the incident played a role in her decision to leave PetSmart after 10 years. “I loved PetSmart, but ever Since BC partners took over, they don’t care about animals or employees or their safety. I felt like I was on a hamster wheel that never ended. The amount of death and loss was unacceptable.”

Burrows’ store in central Michigan has experienced three power outages since she began working there in the summer of 2021, a complaint that she filed with the Michigan Occupational Health and Safety Administration said.

During the worst outage, in August, her store lost power for six days, and employees were expected to unload trucks and continue working in the store without A/C or fans in 90-degree or higher heat, according to the complaint. Burrows said lifting heavy items such as kennels, dog food, and aquariums in the heat gave her headache and nausea. Her co-workers also felt sick from working in the heat, the complaint says. 

“Chinchillas were pressing themselves against glass to keep cool. They started to act unresponsive, too tired to stay awake,” Burrows said. Some animals at Burrows’ store had to be transferred to another store, the complaint states. Roughly 200 fish also died because filters in their tanks weren’t running and oxygenating the water, according to the complaint. PetSmart did not respond to an opportunity to provide more context about the complaint. 

Litt, the PetSmart spokesperson, did not respond to a question about whether PetSmart provides power generators at any of its stores for emergencies, but said that during severe-weather conditions, PetSmart immediately implements its emergency protocol, which includes evacuating pets in stores that could be impacted, providing extra food and water, and elevating pets to safer heights. Litt cited, as an example, the company’s handling of a fire at a supermarket adjacent to a PetSmart in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, in late 2021. The PetSmart team partnered with the local fire department to evacuate animals, and associates from neighboring locations came to lend a hand. 

“It makes me really sad for the animals we could have taken better care of if given the opportunity,” said Burrows, the current associate in Michigan. “A lot of us associates treat animals as if they were our own, doing the best to make sure they’re OK. We want them to go to good homes.”

“PetSmart instilled so much trauma,” said Potts, the former employee in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. “I ended up getting diagnosed with PTSD—PTSD tied to animals. I felt immense guilt. I wouldn’t let myself sleep. I felt selfish going to bed. But at my job, animals passed away so often, you couldn’t do anything.”